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Frenchman Jean Dujardin may have won this year's Academy Award for best actor for his role in The Artist, but in France he was beat out for the country's most prestigious acting award, the Cesar, by a new acting sensation: The 34-year-old son of African immigrants, Omar Sy.
Sy's movie, The Intouchables, was a hit across Europe and is now playing in theaters in the U.S. It's a feel-good buddy comedy about a quadriplegic white aristocrat who hires an unemployed black kid from the projects as his personal aide. Despite the differences in age, race and background, Philippe the millionaire (renowned actor Francois Cluzet) and Driss (Sy) form a deep bond. The film confronts racism, poverty and infirmity, while Sy illuminates the screen with his rapid-fire banter and infectious laugh.
Speaking through a translator, Sy says he thinks the film struck a chord "because it's about two different Frances meeting each other, liking each other and forming a powerful relationship. That's the problem in France today. There are worlds living side by side yet completely apart. People don't know or understand their neighbor. That's why people are scared."
Like the character he plays, Sy hails from a France far from the glittering boulevards of Paris. The fourth of eight children, he grew up in one of the gritty suburbs with high immigrant populations, known as banlieus, that ring the French capital.
Sy's Senegalese father worked in a factory; his Mauritanean mother was a cleaning woman. Sy is an idol to young kids growing up in the banlieus, who say that his story gives them home: If he can make it, they can, too.
Immigration has loomed large on the French political landscape lately. Even many second-generation immigrants said they felt stigmatized by the toxic, anti-foreigner, anti-Muslim rhetoric of the recent French presidential race. Sy, who's Muslim himself, says his background has been an asset.
"I feel completely French," he says, "but it's true that as the son of immigrants I struggled with my identity, especially in my teenage years. But I've been able to take aspects of both French and African culture and I'm all the richer for it, even if it does mean I have a little more baggage than most people."
Sy got his start several years ago doing impersonations on a radio comedy show. Then followed a wildly popular TV comedy skit that still airs today.
But it was The Intouchables that launched Sy into real stardom. It became France's second-highest grossing film of all time. A third of the French population has seen it.
Intouchables also swept Europe, spending nine weeks as the No. 1 film in Germany. But some American critics have had harsh words for it, saying it deals in cliches and smacks of Uncle Tom racism.
"They saw it through an American lens," he says. "You can't compare France and America. They are completely different in every way. The point is: My character could have been Arab, or white, because it's his housing project culture and world that permeate and define him. A kid from the projects is marked, no matter what his color."
Sy has since left the projects — though he says he will always carry them within. Those who know him say he goes back often, and he doesn't forget anyone.
Watching him leave the TV studios, it's not hard to believe: Sy seems to have a kind word and a warm smile for everyone, especially the security guards and the cleaning woman.